I figured I was as appalled as the next guy that Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually the governor of California. But down here in Mexico the next guy — and the next and the next, all along Mazatlan’s closed-for-Carnaval waterfront — is so appalled that on Saturday night Governor Arnold was burned in effigy. After residents here decided Arnold should be, well, fired, Carnaval planners made a larger-than-life-size piñata in his likeness, stuffed it with incendiary devices and adorned it with a beauty-pageant sash that read “El Goberneytor.” They hung Arnold on the hook of a tow truck, then slowly paraded him through town, accompanied by a small marching band and a large dancing troupe of jesters–cum–Grim Reapers. When Arnold finally reached the huge crowd at the Olas Atlas waterfront, somebody lit the fuse and “El Goberneytor” transformed into a spinning pyrotechnic device spraying wide veils of sparks that congealed into a blazing pillar of fire until only the head remained dangling in the smoky breeze.
Somebody is burned in effigy every year in Mazatlán — usually Mexican politicians, businessmen or show-business stars felled by corruption or moral scandal. It’s supposed to be sort of a joke. Locals call it La Quema del Mal Humor — the Fire of Bad Humor — and it is the centerpiece of the city’s massive Carnaval, held on the last Saturday before Lent. In concept, the most-despised person in Mazatlán is burned in effigy so that the souls of everybody else will be purified by the fire. In practice, La Quema del Mal Humor is a combination of ancient sacred metaphor and modern bad-taste street theater — think Jesus-on-Calvary meets puppet-show-at-anti-WTO-demonstration.
There was no missing the light-hearted side of this, from the comical rendering of Schwarzenegger’s block head, buff bod and stunned expression to the kooky accompaniment of his entourage, which danced incessantly to what seemed to be endless banda variations on the themes from the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and the Little Rascals.
But how the governor of California came to be considered the most-despised person in a laid-back, tourist-dependent, Mexican beach resort like Mazatlán is not a joke. It’s telling that until Schwarzenegger’s effigy got to Olas Altas, the parade route didn’t pass any tourist attractions. It toured the ragged neighborhoods of the Mexicans who work in the hotels and restaurants for the equivalent of $5 or $6 a day — people perhaps familiar with the mixed message of California’s immigration laws, which tend to attract and then reject Mexican workers.
The effigy provoked a surprising reaction, considering that Mexicans have frequently tended to resent those who have left their country to emigrate to the United States, sometimes describing them as traitors. Even so, the crowd that gathered for the climactic incineration roared with indignation as the so-called charges against Schwarzenegger were announced — by an emcee who had been elected Carnaval’s El Rey de Alegria (King of Happiness) and who was adorned with a dorky cowboy hat and a beauty-pageant sash himself.
“El Goberneytor has provoked an attack against the undocumented foreigners who live in our neighboring country to the north — throwing to the four winds any concerns over the bad treatment of the Hispanic community,” intoned El Rey de Alegria, not looking very alegre. “He is a pupil of the anti-immigrant policies of Pete Wilson, even though he is an immigrant himself who arrived in that country posing his body like a model and then posing as an actor. He demonstrates that he does not know the history of the land that he governs — that California was Mexico before it was taken away in an act of aggressive war.” It went on like that for a while.
Fortunately, a drummer had the comic sense to punctuate this rant with a few rim shots, and the King of Happiness got everybody laughing again by punctuating this dire recounting of Schwarzenegger’s offenses with the perfect punch line of a verdict just as the executioner lit his match: “Hasta la vista, baby!”
And as the sparks sprayed and the piñata spun and the crowd and the fire roared, it struck me that a Quema del Mal Humor probably would have solved as many problems as a recall election, especially with better fire-code enforcement.
The Sorrows of Chalmers Johnson
Back when he headed Cal Berkeley’s political science department and the Center for Chinese Studies, Chalmers Johnson published scholarly studies with titles like Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937–1945. For 40 years Johnson’s oeuvre was highly respected in patched-elbow circles, but wasn’t exactly the stuff you’d find pyramided in airport news shops. Things changed in 2000, however, when he published a critique of U.S. foreign policy with the Mickey Spillane–ish title, Blowback. The book, which warned of a coming retribution for America’s imperial bullying antics, languished for a while until 9/11 elevated it to the status of prophecy — and hot best-seller.
Last week Johnson appeared at the Central Library downtown to talk about his newest analysis, The Sorrows of Empire, an even more scalding indictment of the planetary garrison that has been created by the Pentagon and CIA. Severe arthritis limits his touring schedule, and the 72-year-old Johnson made his way to the auditorium stage with the help of a cane. Yet the voice and wit were as clear and acerbic as when he was a regular commentator on KQED-TV’s World Press Review in the 1970s.
“It’s not a book that’s filled with a lot of laughs,” he began, and the audience was his.
According to Johnson, the U.S. maintains 725 military bases (and 234 golf courses) in 140 of the United Nations’ 189 countries, along with several secret bases in Britain and Israel; it spends 93 percent of its international-affairs budget on the Pentagon (with the State Department receiving the glove-box change), while ensuring that its airborne officers stationed in Fallujah are served dinners by white-jacketed, bow-tied Iraqi waiters.
Johnson, a Navy vet who once moonlighted as a CIA consultant, was a self-described “committed Cold Warrior” until 1991, when the post-USSR peace dividend anticipated by Western scholars of his generation evaporated. Instead, America lustily gripped the Master of the World baton — guided by the desire to dominate the earth (and beyond) not merely to project power and protect corporate investments, but simply because it could.
“Was the Cold War a cover for something more fundamental?” he began asking himself. Johnson’s disillusionment crystallized in 1996, when a visit to Okinawa revealed to him an overseas military culture of drunkenness, sexual assault and environmental pollution — all considered normal and acceptable side effects of empire maintenance.
“Militarism is not the same as national defense,” he reminded the audience, and then described a Military Petroleum Complex that has transformed America into the New Rome — with all the hubris, nepotism and corruption that title implies. “Kim Il-Jong and George W. Bush are very similar in that neither would be where they are without their daddies.”
Lenin may have identified imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, yet, like capitalism, American hegemony continues to resiliently reinvent itself. The dangers posed by imperial overreach, Johnson warned, are perpetual war (Bush has previously alluded to 60 countries in urgent need of regime change), loss of the democratic republic, institutionalized disinformation and, finally, bankruptcy — signs of which are already appearing on the historical ledger sheet.
“We didn’t win the Cold War,” he said of the economics of superpower rivalry, “we simply didn’t lose as badly as the Soviets did.” Nor does he think our empire will have as long a shelf life as the USSR’s: “The collapse of empires now comes with the speed of FedEx.”
Johnson’s friendly audience fell mostly in the middle-aged-to-elderly demographic, the kind of liberal citizenry found at readings and town-hall meetings at the Skirball Center, the Onion or Midnight Special Bookstore. A few days later I spoke by phone to Johnson, who lives in academic retirement with his wife Sheila north of San Diego, where they take in opera and theater, as well as symphonies in La Jolla. It was Sheila who suggested his book’s title, drawing from Goethe’s novella of unrequited love, The Sorrows of Young Werther.
“I’ve read 45 Ph.D. dissertations in my life and I’ll be very happy if I never read another one,” he said, clearly a man who no longer misses university life — or the state of student consciousness. “It’s astonishing how passive and apolitical many of them are. I’m appalled by how indifferent they are to their world.”
What, I wondered, exactly separated the buccaneer outlook of the Bush White House from Bill Clinton’s lip-biting, feel-good imperialism?
“Its apocalyptic view of the world reflects Christian fundamentalism and Zionism — some of the roots of his administration.”
Johnson told me he had no qualms about the work he did at the CIA for Richard Helms, and yet he’s all for dismantling the agency.
“The CIA’s intelligence estimates on Iraq should have been awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature,” he said. “Why do we need them today? Google and the Internet are more effective, honest and cheaper than the agency.”
Now, late in life, this admirer of Cicero and Goethe has taken on history’s biggest empire from a home with a pool and a view of the Pacific, and his new book is climbing up the Los Angeles Times’ best-seller list. What else could he possibly want?
“I wish,” sighed Chalmers Johnson, “San Diego had a better opera house.”
The Face Factor
Retired real estate agent Marge Malley, 80, counts as a savvy voter — she knows where the candidates stand and is supporting North Carolina Senator John Edwards for the Democratic presidential nomination because she wants someone to look out for the poor. Still, at the recent Edwards rally inside a senior center in Culver City, she couldn’t help but blurt out another compelling reason: “He’s so adorable.”
Yes, that most superficial of attributes, good looks, has reared its glamorous visage even among seniors in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. This isn’t just a California phenomenon. A couple weeks before the Culver City rally, in South Carolina just before the primary there, I met other senior femmes who seemed similarly smitten. Shirley Wagner, 69, a registered Republican in Seneca, S.C., who is voting for Bush, interrupted work at her cake shop to ponder Edwards. Wagner recalled that she’d voted for John F. Kennedy way back when. And Edwards, she said, reminds her of Kennedy.
“First of all, he’s cute,” said Wagner. “Second, Edwards talks good. It sounds like he’s got a lot of sense. I’d like him even if he were from Missouri.”
Back at the Culver City rally, retired auditor Rowena Coates, 75, reported what her
7-year-old grandson had just confessed over the phone about John Kerry: “‘Oh, Grammy,’ he says, ‘I saw that man on TV who scares me. It’s that same man whose face was in the tree that was throwing apples at Dorothy when she was on the yellow-brick road.’” So much for gravitas.
As usual, Edwards, at 50, who would be an older president than Teddy Roosevelt or JFK, wore his face in full-smile mode at the senior center. He radiated warmth from the moment he stepped into public view and the crowd was drawn immediately to his trademark “Two Americas” stump speech. The skilled trial lawyer, a legend among his North Carolina peers, tailored his message to this particular jury of voters, many of whom had been supporting Howard Dean until his withdrawal last week. They booed the very mention of George W. Bush, to which a delighted Edwards said: “Correct response.”
In South Carolina a couple of weeks ago, the word union never seemed to cross Edwards’ lips, even as he laid out the evils of jobs going overseas, but in Culver City, Edwards couldn’t say the U word enough: He signaled solidarity with striking grocery workers, listed family members who belonged to unions, and welcomed rank and file from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which has endorsed him. And he talked of defending workers’ rights to organize — those who applauded included Tom Hayden, who watched from the side.
Edwards even felt empowered to speak of embracing immigrants and to intone proudly about being a trial lawyer, which would be anathema to South Carolina patriots.
“I’d walk into courtrooms representing you or a family just like yours,” said Edwards. “We’d be on one side, and on the other side of the courtroom would be the armies of lawyers representing the big corporations. And you know they always have the best lawyers money can buy. Very experienced, very distinguished. And they would look across the courtroom at me . . . and they would say, ‘What is he doing here? He thinks he belongs in the same courtroom with us?’ But here’s what happened. I beat ’em. And then I beat ’em again, and I beat ’em again, and I beat ’em again.” He’d do the same to Bush, he said, if given the chance.
Afterward, Muriel Rothenberg, who’s about to turn 79, said she was “very impressed with Edwards’ message of hope. That was nice to hear instead of all that negativity.” And then she got to the heart of the matter: “He reminds me of Clinton.”
Scrum and Scrummer
“Is this a national anthem?”
“Yeah, mate, a national anthem of drinking!” said my kiwi pal Steve, hoisting a toast as far too many of the 8,000 fans at the Home Depot Center tooted ceaselessly on long plastic trumpets. A four-to-the-floor house/harmonica mash-up pumped over the sound system while a massive contingency of kiwis did a skank-like jig among a crowd sporting flags and clown wigs. A woman with a giant green foam “hang loose” hand shook her ass, while an O.C. thug-a-be fondled the udders on an inflatable miniature cow.
New Zealand was about to take on Fiji in the semis of the Team Roc USA Sevens international rugby tournament, the first ever North American stop on the eight-event World Sevens Series. Sevens rugby features seven-player teams (as opposed to the standard 15) engaged in what looks like a lateral-heavy game of kill the man with the ball. The athletes are bull-thick, dragster-quick, and devastatingly powerful. Games last less than twenty minutes, play flows almost continuously in one long sprint, and violent collisions are frequent. It’s kind of like human pinball.
You could see that in — or, rather, on — the face of 23-year-old American player Tyson Meek who, following a losing prelim battle against Australia, sat in the stands next to some supporters from his home state of Oklahoma. His hair matted down with sweat, and with raw, red abrasions over his brow, Meek took a slug from a bottle of Gatorade and watched the action unfold on the perfect emerald rectangle that is the Galaxy’s intimate 27,000-seat home pitch.
This in contrast to the recent spectacle up the 110 at the Staples Center, where some of America’s highest paid and most temperamental prima donnas battled for an NBA All-Star title: You wouldn’t catch any of them climbing into the stands to chat undisturbed with their pals. In spite of the warm-up suit that clearly identified Meek as a member of the USA side, no adoring fans swarmed him, begged for his autograph, or tried to steal his Gatorade bottle to auction off on Ebay. He was just another rugby fan in the crowd.
Southern California may have one of the strongest rugby scenes in America, and the sport is one of the fastest growing club sports on college campuses, but it remains underground. This hasn’t dissuaded Team Roc — a subsidiary of Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records — from sponsoring this Los Angeles stop on the international circuit for the next two years, creating an inner-city youth rugby program, and sponsoring the USA sevens squad.
As I glanced around the stadium I counted 22 Roc-a-Fella and Team Roc signs. What exactly did the hip-hop and rugby communities have in common, I wondered. I flipped open the event program in search of an answer and found these words from Damon Dash, CEO of Team Roc/Roc-a-Fella/Roc-a-Wear: “The athletes that we [America] currently produce for football, basketball, wrestling, and soccer are like an available national resource to me . . . The Roc is out to conquer! Roc for Life! . . . Holla!”
Translation: Rugby represents an opportunity for Dash and company to seize first-mover advantage, develop a pipeline of Team Roc–sponsored talent, usher this talent into the Team Roc tournament big leagues playing for Team Roc (USA), create greater brand awareness of the Roc-a-Fella family and American family, and kick some global ass.
Just as regulation time ran out, a New Zealand player charged past the try line, breaking a 5-5 tie and sending the kiwis on into the finals (where they would lose to Argentina). But first it was the USA’s turn to play again. With two tries from Meek, they took the Shield from Korea, then celebrated by lapping the field to a standing ovation — after which the announcer inspired the day’s first round of boos. In a rich baritone that cut through the cacophony of cheers and blaring horns, he intoned, “An important announcement to all rugby fans: Sales of alcohol will cease at 5 p.m.”
And other instructive word pairings from Vicious Vocabulary (Random House Reference) by Phil Eisenhower, an L.A. high school English teacher who discovered that if he took words commonly found on SAT and GRE exams and phrased them as insults, students were more likely to remember them:
gasconading bag of hot air
sebaceous pus bucket